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Vi ♡ Norge

15 May 2012

“Don’t you hate it when …?” … “Have you seen how they?” …. “Why can’t they be more ….” “Why are they so ….”

We immigrants love to do this sort of thing. It makes us feel like we’re not crazy for thinking a certain custom/tradition/behavior/response is the most ridiculous thing we’ve ever seen.  “This place would be so fabulous,” we say, “if only it could be a bit more like America or Holland or Tanzania. Then it would be the most perfect place on earth.” (Never mind that it would no longer be Norway.)

We readily admit to our love/hate relationship with Norway, which really isn’t so different from the frustration a wife feels for her husband when he loads the dishwasher all wrong, or doesn’t notice the toilet needs cleaning, or puts her bras in the dryer. I love all the wonderful things about you dear, but, you see, my way is just, well, the right way to do it.

But we immigrants also love to sit around and share what we love about Norway, because it reminds us of why we came here in the first place, or at any rate, why, despite continuous rain and painfully high prices, we stay.

Norway: in honor of 17 May, Norway’s National Day, here is a list of everything I love about you, everything you do just perfectly:

Torget i Bergen

Photo: Bergen Tourist Board/Per Eide.

  1. fresh shrimp from the sea, cooked on the boat and sold at the fisketorget in Bergen
  2. the brick-colored sky when the sun hovers just under the top of the mountains
  3. the secretive blue world of late morning light in winter
  4. forking trails that invite me to never reach my goal
  5. the tradition of Sunday hikes
  6. chemical-free drinking water
  7. Hvitveis and Blåveis, carpeting the forests in spring

    Hvitveis (“wood anemone” in English)

  8. the crisp and cozy smell of sheets dried outside in the sea air
  9. the word “kos” and for worshipping it when we need it more – in winter!
  10. tursjokolade
  11. that children are safe to run free and explore their world
  12. dagpenger and sykemeldinger for those who need it
  13. equal access for everyone to health care
  14. free education
  15. kransekake
  16. civil rights for everyone, even in same sex marriages
  17. the importance of “we”
  18. the explosion of wild berries in the woods, along the roads, and in our backyard in August

    Kransekake for 17 May.

  19. the light of the midnight sun, even when it’s raining
  20. roundabouts
  21. Christmas and Santa Lucia Day
  22. påskekrim
  23. chili nuts
  24. feriepenger and half-taxes in June and December
  25. a workday that ends at 4 p.m.
  26. the value placed on families
  27. barnehage — a paradise for all 6 and under!

Please feel free to add to my list in the comments below!

To read last year’s post on the traditions of 17 May, click here.


“We get the country we pay for”

9 May 2012

When fellow American blogger Teresa Owens recently spent two months in Norway she commented — or rather sighed: “We get the country we pay for.”

Given that yesterday the State of the World’s Mothers Report awarded Norway with first place (for the third year in a row), I resurrect one of my favorite “Daily Show” pieces: The Stockholm Syndrome, from 2009. The Daily Show sent comedian and reporter Wyatt Cenac to Sweden in the hopes of waking the Swedes up from their “socialist nightmare.” It’s a hilarious look at the world of democratic socialism from, well, the eyes of a capitalist.

The video is in two parts and if you are in a hurry you can begin part 1 at 1:45. (And yes, it’s about Sweden, but we know the only real difference between Sweden and Norway is the vowels and the meatball recipes).


Vodpod videos no longer available.


Vodpod videos no longer available.


The U.S. was ranked 25th in the list of best places to be a mom, far below many other “first world” nations. I’m not Norwegian, so I cannot boast about this ranking, nor even the many other “best in the world” achievements that Norway has earned, but I do want to be proud of my own country. I grew up believing it was the best in the world, and maybe at one time it was.

Dealing with Anders Behring Breivik

25 April 2012

I sat down on the sofa last night with my copy of Aftenposten, turning the pages in hopes of finding something to read that wasn’t about Anders Behring Breivik, or, paradoxically, the surge of immigrants coming to Norway (an increase in 41% from 2005-2009).

“Vanskelig å diagnostisere Behring Breivik” (“Difficult to Diagnose Behring Breivik”)  read a headline that I flipped past, and then, with agitation returned to.

My husband sat next to me on the sofa, peering intently into his iPhone. “Are you concentrating on something?” I asked him. “Or can I tell you what I’m thinking?”

I do this often: use him as a sounding board. He knows that most of the time he is just supposed to listen to me rant, but I know I can trust him to tell me when my ideas have gone completely off the deep end, or when I actually might be onto something.

“Is it possible that we just want to believe Breivik is nuts so that we don’t have to listen to him? Maybe that’s why he is difficult to diagnose. Maybe there isn’t anything wrong with him psychologically.”

I was thinking of Foucault’s theory that societies need to categorize people into normal and abnormal to gain power and control; thus, as a society we decide that certain behaviors are psychoses (for more, read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.) In other words, it serves a particular social purpose to believe that Breivik is crazy, because then we can say: he is not like us. It is much harder to believe that he is sane and could actually kill people for his beliefs. Then we might have to take what he says seriously.

“The guys is nuts,” Aidan responded. “I mean, look, he has deluded himself into believing it was right to kill lots of people.”

“What about the army, then? Soldiers believe it’s right to kill for ideological reasons.” We argued back and forth about this point. I began to believe in neither my arguments, nor those of my husband, which happens often.

Ending the debate with a deep sigh, I shook the pages of my newspaper back into a readable form, and found myself intensely engaged in the court transcripts of Breivik’s interrogation yesterday. No more than ten lines in, I reported to Aidan that I changed my mind: “He’s completely bonkers.”

It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that Breivik lives in a world completely disengaged from reality, a world in which he believes his arguments make such perfect sense, are so logical, that he could surely convince the rest of us of them if only given a platform.

Breivik described to the court his disgust at having to walk through the piles of dead bodies that he himself was responsible for: “I have never experienced anything so gruesome,” he claimed.

He spoke with eerie matter-of-factness about how he tricked a group of youth into believing that he was a police officer:

“It was actually just a coincidence that I saw a head sticking up from behind the pump house. And I realized that there were many people [hiding] there . . . I think I began with: ‘Have you seen him? Do you know where the shots came from?’ And then there were some who pointed in one direction. It was to lure them out so that I could execute them . . . I said there was a boat that would take them safely away, that they must come out now . . . They seemed very skeptical. But there were some, two or three of them, who seemed very relieved. I said: ‘You must come now.” And then there were three who came to me.”

Breivik shot and killed fourteen people at that particular spot on the island.

When asked by the prosecutor whether he had any feelings for his victims, Breivik responded, “I know what I have done . . . but one must remember that I, too, lost my whole family on 22 July, I lost all my friends.”

As spell-binding as statements like this are for giving us insight into the mind of a mass murderer, they divert us from Breivik’s message – a message the government and the press are intentionally suppressing by not televising the trial, and choosing what to print in the papers. After all, Brievik did say that the killings were only the first part of his campaign; he hoped the trial would comprise his propaganda phase.

But what would happen if we actually listened to Breivik’s message, if we could filter out his god complex and listen to the core of what he is trying to say? Would we agree with him that multiculturalism doesn’t work, or at least not in the “let’s all be happy about difference and just get along” way? Would we, too, want to protect Norway from the change that necessarily comes with an increasing immigrant community? (And would anyone dare to agree with Breivik and join the exiled ranks of Fjordman or certain hounded and now back-peddling members of the FrP?)

Norwegians do have very good reasons to be proud of their country, and there is much here that should be protected. Norway consistently ranks first in world indexes of prosperity, wellness, and human development; the Global Peace Index ranked it as the most peaceful country in the world; it is the world’s fourth wealthiest (GDP per capita), and its government has the world’s largest pension fund.

Norway works. It works exceptionally well. But Breivik knows there is more to it than that: Norway works, as long as everyone agrees to be Norwegian.

What does it mean when a country refuses to join the EU and taxes imported cheese to protect its farmers and encourage the purchase of local variants like Nor-gonzola? What views about being “non-Norwegian” are there when, during a butter crisis, people stew for weeks about whether they could/should/would opt for importing foreign butter, or would simply prefer to go without? (And when the foreign butter did arrive, large numbers refused to buy it.) What underlying values are at play when social integration into the culture of Norway is deemed the highest goal, more important, in fact, than learning to read and write in the first grade?

Breivik claims he was acting to protect his nation of Norway from multiculturalism, from immigrants, from foreign influence. Is it possible, then, that he simply took to extremes the very values that define what it means to be Norwegian?

Might there be good reasons to be critical of multiculturalism and immigration? Might there be good reasons to cling to the country we have now and fear the country it might become in the future? Globalization has coerced us into viewing the world in terms of flux, flow, open borders, dismantled barriers; we are one world, we are citizens of the world. But which of us actually lives as though we can float, problem free, from culture to culture, without ever feeling the blisters from the ill fit?

After I wrote the post titled “Normal,” I was surprised at how many readers resonated with a need for having things just the way they want them to be. We actually like our normal and predictable lives. Is it taboo to believe that in this tiny way we understand Breivik?

[A final note: Because Breivik has wounded Norway so deeply, I feel I must add that I in no way sympathize with Breivik’s thoughts or actions. In this post I merely intended to raise questions about the paradox between being a protectionist nation with strongly-felt patriotism that at the same time points a chastising finger to those with anti-immigration sentiments. I wonder where globalization will ultimately lead us and if it will ever be possible to exist in a world without nations or citizenship. As always, I welcome comments and criticism!]


18 April 2012

A question people ask me with surprising frequency is: “If you could live anywhere, where would you want to live?” This is clearly a reference to the magic carpet we keep parked between our two leather sofas. On any given day we say: Yes! Let’s go there and live for awhile! We jump on, zoom away, land in some other world, and carry on exactly as before. (Which seems the most logical explanation for how I moved from Indiana to England, then to Toronto and now to Bergen.)

But if I could live anywhere – anywhere in the world? Sometimes I respond with “England,” sometimes “Toronto” . . . I’ve recently set my eyes on Italy. Oh, Gorgeous Land of sun and warmth and an endless supply of affordable wine! But I know I couldn’t do it. I’m too tired to learn another language, to figure out all the ins and outs and around- in-circles of where one buys coat hangers or how to apply for a TV license. New take-a-number systems, fill-out-these-form systems, and please-come-back-tomorrow-with-the-correct-paperwork systems. And I know myself. Once I had it all figured out, I would realize that this new place was not the paradise I’d dreamed of. I’d begin thinking of all the things I missed about that last place I lived. I am, in fact, the type of person who’s scared to believe in eternal life because I don’t want to be stuck in Heaven forever. “But it’s Paradise!” you say. Oh, I know, but I will come to hate it, if for no other reason than because I can’t leave.

I am stuck in Norway. I know that. The carpet has lost its magic; there is no where else to go. Stuck between rain drops and impossible “o” sounds, unable to choose between lørdags pizza and cheese-filled lamb sausages, struggling to keep my sanity through a two-hour performance of “Ulverock” (“Wolf Rock”) with my daughter with no clear indication of what storyline could possibly connect a wolf who can’t play the guitar with a goat mother, a May Pole, a magician parrot in a shockingly green disco jumpsuit, lottery cards, the coming of winter, and a dance contest.

But one night, covered under a blanket of the foggy yr that is so characteristic of Bergen, I walked along the road that follows the curve of the sea and looked out across the fjord at the single, slowly pulsating light on the promontory. It, too, was enveloped in fog, but still shining powerfully through. I stopped, and with the mist on my face – the gentle tickle of it on my nose – it was suddenly the most perfect of all nights and I wanted to run and sing for so much beauty.

I have felt this before, on clear days, when the sky is too impossibly blue to believe in. I hike up through the wet forest of Nordgardsfjellet and leave the trees behind me, stepping out onto a sun-filled stage. I stand there with arms to the sea, the wind pushing against me, blowing the hair back from my face so that there is nothing between me and this glorious moment. I find a massive slab of soft, flat stone and lie down, like a lizard. Even with closed eyes the sunlight is so bright that it wipes all thoughts from my mind. Paradise.

Suddenly, a swirl of perfect moments overtakes me and I am living in all of them at once, here, on this rock: punt rides on the Thames in spring beneath a canopy of willow trees, and the frozen fog surrounding the spires of Christchurch that left me speechless and frozen in the street; stretching my neck to look, upside-down, through the back window of a taxi where I find the moon and the tiny dots of stars above me and I no longer care where I am going; sitting alone on a porch swing well past midnight, my mind tip-toeing away from the party inside to wonder at how I can keep this moment from moving on to the next, how I can envelop myself with a halo of perfect moments that lasts forever.

This is where I want to live.

View from Nordgardsfjellet, April 2012.


10 April 2012

Before anyone else in the house stirred I sat at the table with my morning coffee, groggy, but relieved that today had finally come. We made it – we survived Easter 2012.

Through the kitchen window I watched the rain splattering into the puddles where the grass should be, and I realized that for the first time in four days a damp newspaper awaited me in the little black box by our drive. Still in my bathrobe I donned my knee-high rubber boots, grabbed an umbrella and hopped outside.

Of course absolutely nothing had happened in Norway over the past ten days, but I cuddled the warmth of my coffee cup against my chest and flipped through the pages of Aftenposten because this is what I always do in the morning before anyone else wakes up.

Today’s cover story: a factory in Røros produces office chairs that are shipped as far away as Asia! and America! Page 2: the traditional reindeer-driving race is underway in Karasjok. Nestled all the way back on page 14: the usual diagram concerning what exactly did happen and where and when on 22 July (today comprising a full two-page spread). Nothing has changed. All is back to normal. Predictable. Comforting.

Today will be the first day of my vacation, I think. And I smile.

Squawking sea gulls swarm over the street outside, apparently having also returned from their cabins late last night. They remind me that today is trash day. School children gather under brightly colored dots of umbrellas at the end of the street. Today I will go down to my office as I always do after dropping the kids off at school and daycare, and return to the work that I have neglected for a week.

Ah, normal life. I take a deep breath and loosen my shoulders. Normal is good.

My son has Asperger Syndrome and he, too, knows it’s going to be a good day. He counts the kitchen tiles on the wall as he does each morning before school: one tile up for each good class on the schedule, one down for every one he doesn’t like. He has Norwegian today (one down), but with gym and nature class he can count two back up and finish up. “I am excited to go back to school today,” he told me.

I make his lunch exactly as I have every day for the past five years: one slice of Jarlsberg cheese on Pågen lantgoda bread with the butter that comes in the white and yellow pack; five red pepper slices – cut into long sticks and not circles; and one yellow apple sliced down the middle and wrapped in paper so it doesn’t taste like the other food in the lunch box.

These are the things that make him feel good about his day.

Even though I hate the noisy seagulls that leave dirty white streaks on our car and terrace (one tile down), there they are, circling our street because it is Tuesday – trash day (one tile up!), and the stores are open today (another up!) and the mail will come again (one more up!) and the rain is falling even harder now, but I know this rain. This rain is normal. These are the things that make me feel good about my day.

Happy Ten Days of Easter

3 April 2012

God påske!

Happy Easter!

Please check back next Tuesday to see if I survived my government-enforced ten days of Easter vacation.

(And no, this is not spring break. We had nine days of that in March).

In case you missed it, here’s last year’s Easter post: “Easter Panic.”

Stengt, Stengt, Stengt, ÅPEN!!!!!, Stengt, Stengt . . .
(Closed, Closed, Closed, OPEN!!!!, Closed, Closed . . .)


27 March 2012

Tomorrow I am giving a lecture at the University of Stavanger titled, “The Great American Novel.” Now before you laugh, you should know that the English beat you to it. They were laughing at the very idea of American greatness almost 200 years ago:

In 1820 Sydney Smith wrote in the Edinburgh Review:

In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? Or what old ones have they advanced? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans? Who drinks out of American glasses? Or eats from American plates? Or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets?

To be fair, the United States was only 44 years old in 1820, but beyond that, if this is the measure for greatness we should worship China.

I’ll be speaking about ideas of nationalism and how very important literature is to the concept of the “nation.” In my research I came across two paintings from the period of Romantic Nationalism that inspired much contemplation this morning.

Here’s the American painting first: It’s titled “American Progress” (what other title would do?) and was painted by John Gast in 1872.

"American Progress," John Gast, 1872,

Lady Progress leads the way, casting fear and shadows on the Native Americans, wild animals, and any others not in her path. She leads the trains and the stagecoaches in a parade towards modernity. If you have doubts about the relevance of this painting today, cast your eyes on the lines for the new iPad.

There it is folks: Progress! Head for the light. Keep your eyes on the shiny, white Lady Apple of Progress.

And then we have the Norwegian entry for the National Spirit Award:

"Bridal Journey in Hardanger" by Hans Gude and Adolpe Tidemann, 1848.

It’s not the absence of evil that I noticed first (no overt “You’re either with us or against us!” message), nor even the tranquil theme of a bridal party (although they are surely rowing over some poor plankton), and the idyllic setting of fjords and mountains didn’t immediately strike me either. (What could be more Norwegian, you ask? My choice scene would have been three people in their 70s getting drunk at the airport bar before their 7 a.m. flight to Las Palmas.)

But no, what struck me about the Norwegian painting is that it was painted by two men!

Samarbeid. Samarbeid. Samarbeid.

A Nation of “We.”

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